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Assessing the Threat of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

February 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
North Korea's launch of another nuclear test has triggered panic in the west. Jeffrey Brown gets an assessment of North Korea's nuclear capabilities from Charles "Jack" Pritchard, former special envoy for North Korea negotiations under President George W. Bush, and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined by Ambassador Charles Jack Pritchard, former U.S. special envoy for North Korea negotiations under President George W. Bush, and James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ambassador Pritchard, I guess one obvious question is, why now?

AMBASSADOR CHARLES JACK PRITCHARD, Former U.S. Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea: Yes. It’s a great question.

And I usually start by saying, why not now? And let me explain that. The North Koreans have a very mature and serious nuclear weapons and a missile technology program. And they’re going to continue to do the research and development. And when the time comes that they’re ready to do a test, they’re going to do that, unless there is a political or a foreign policy reason for them not to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean, there’s been the questions about responding to sanctions. I mean, even today, people are wondering, is it tied to State of the Union? Is it sort of a direct, you know, push against the U.S.?

CHARLES JACK PRITCHARD: Yes, I don’t think so.

I mean, in 2009, we heard this exact same thing. There was a condemnation of their April 2009 missile launch. The North Koreans six weeks later conducted a second nuclear test, in which they said it was because of the condemnation that occurred over their missile test. You know, the response to that is, that’s nonsense. Nobody conducts nuclear tests because they have been chastised over a missile test.

More specifically, I would say if you’re looking at a concurrence of time, it’s not the State of the Union. It’s the two weeks prior to the inauguration of a new South Korean president.

JEFFREY BROWN: To another part — that part of the world.


JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Well, we will get back to that.

But let me ask James Acton, the North Korean official news agency referred to this as a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously. Now, what does that mean? What can we tell about the actual device?

JAMES ACTON, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Well, good evening, Jeff.

Most people believe that Pyongyang’s long-term goal is developing a ballistic missile along with a nuclear warhead that can threaten the United States. Now, in order to do that, you need a miniaturized, physically smaller and lighter nuclear device.

So, Pyongyang is claiming that it’s successfully done that. What I want to emphasize is we actually don’t have any kind of independent confirmation of that at the moment. All we know from the seismic signals, from the shaking of the earth after the test, was that this was an explosion.

What we don’t know is the size of the device. We don’t know the material from which the devise was made. In fact, we don’t even know definitively that this was larger than the previous two tests. It probably was. But it would take some time for the seismologists to estimate the yield accurately.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, do we know, to say any more about the bottom-line question here, which is how much of a threat are they to the region and ultimately to the larger — the rest of the world including the U.S.? JAMES ACTON: Well, I think the test today marks a qualitative — sorry — a quantitative change. And it demonstrates that Pyongyang is moving along its arc of developing nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States.

It already has ballistic missiles that can threaten the region. And if it can fit a nuclear warhead onto those, then it can directly threaten some of its neighbors. But it doesn’t mark a fundamentally new departure. North Korea has already tested two nuclear weapons. It’s tested plenty of missiles. Today marks an intensification of the threat, rather than a fundamental change in the nature of the threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned, Ambassador Pritchard, South Korea.


JEFFREY BROWN: I also want to bring up — of course, the world condemned this right away. The most interesting perhaps was China …


JEFFREY BROWN: … which had explicitly called on North Korea not to take this step. What does that tell you?

CHARLES JACK PRITCHARD: Well, take a look over the last six-and-a-half years since the first North Korean nuclear detonation in Oct. of 2006. The Chinese came out much stronger then.

They had come out and unanimously joined the others at the Security Council condemning the North Koreans on several occasions now. So they have developed a pattern of trying to warn off North Korea from doing this, but ultimately they are not going to unilaterally apply the type of pressure that would cause the North Koreans to end its missile and nuclear programs.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the North Koreans think they can go ahead — clearly, they think they can go ahead.

JAMES ACTON: The North Koreans understand the calculations that the Chinese have made. And they know exactly how far they can go.



JAMES ACTON: One of the questions, if I may, is, we got new leadership in China, in Xi Jinping, so the question becomes, will he take on what conventional wisdom says will be a status quo approach to North Korea, or is he going to be a little bit more angry, if you will, at the North Koreans? And how is that going to manifest itself?

JEFFREY BROWN: New leadership in China, new leadership in South Korea, new leadership in Japan.

JAMES ACTON: Correct, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, a new leader in North Korea.

JAMES ACTON: Well, and also a — partly a new regime in the United States.

You have got Secretary Kerry, who will come at this from a slightly different point of view than his predecessor. And so we will have to see how that plays out as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the sort of detective work that happens now to figure out more about the things we don’t know, about this particular test?


Well, you know, as I mentioned previously, all we know is there’s been a test. And we have a very rough estimate of how big the bang was. What we don’t know is whether the device was made from plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Now, that sounds like a minor technical issue, but it actually has hugely important policy consequences.

North Korea only has a small amount of plutonium. And, actually, it would be very, very hard for it to produce more. So part of the reason why North Korea wants to shift to uranium is because it would allow it to increase its arsenal relatively quickly.

So if this turns out to be a highly enriched uranium test, then North Korea has demonstrated its ability to expand its arsenal. So a lot of countries, including the United States, are going to be using radiation detectors to sniff the air, to see if there’s any leakage from the test, and work out from those radioactive materials what it can learn about the nature of the device that was detonated.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is relatively easy to figure out, once you get the detectors?

CHARLES JACK PRITCHARD: Well, I mean, you know, firstly, there’s no guarantee there will be leakage of material.


CHARLES JACK PRITCHARD: Secondly, even if there is, there’s no guarantee you will detect it. You know, we didn’t detect any material from the 2009 test.

If you do detect it, then it’s quite likely that you will be able to distinguish between highly enriched uranium and plutonium. It’s possible, but not completely guaranteed by any means, that you might be able to get some indication of the design of the device.

But, A., that will just educated guesswork and, B., don’t expect governments to be forthcoming about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you briefly, as the U.N. goes back into session to look at sanctions, what more can be done at this point?

JAMES ACTON: Very, very little on an international scale.

In 2009, they came out with some very good sanctions, but it didn’t really influence the North Koreans’ actions. And I don’t think there’s any marginal addition to the sanctions we’re seeing that are in place that are going to cause the North Koreans to blink, if you will, so very little at this point from an international point of view, necessary, but won’t produce an outcome.


Ambassador Jack Pritchard, James Acton, thank you both very much.


JAMES ACTON: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have more about today’s nuclear test on our website, including a dispatch on reaction in Seoul, South Korea, from our partner GlobalPost, plus links to previous NewsHour stories on North Korea.